Saturday, June 25, 2011

You Wonder How These Things Begin

Lorenzo "Lore" (pronounced Lorry) Noto saw The Fantasticks in its one-act version and quickly offered to produce it off Broadway. Now charged with re-expanding the show into a full-length musical, Schmidt and Jones went back to work. Schmidt created an overture to accompany Jones’ new idea of starting the show with the hustle and bustle of a commedia troupe arriving and preparing to present a play, an idea Jones got from a production he had seen of The Servant of Two Masters by the Italian company Piccolo Teatro di Milano. They cut a few songs – "Have You Ever Been to China?", "I Have Been a Fool" – and began writing new songs, including "It Depends on What You Pay" and all of Act II. The two "actors," Henry and Mortimer, returned in Act II as Lodevigo and Socrates, loosely based on the amoral cat and fox in Disney’s Pinocchio.

Schmidt and Jones dubbed the romantic Act One "In the Moonlight" and they went to work on Act Two, "In the Sun," exploring what happens to the two families and the new marriage in the cold, hard light of day. As El Gallo says:

Their moon was cardboard, fragile.

It was very apt to fray,

And what was last night scenic

May seem cynic by today.

The play’s not done.

Oh no – not quite,

For life never ends in the moonlit night;

And despite what pretty poets say,

The night is only half the day.

So we would like to finish

What was foolishly begun.

For the story is not ended

And the play is never done

Until we’ve all of us been burned a bit

And burnished by the sun!

Notice that El Gallo (and Jones) consciously distances himself from the "pretty poets," the traditional, flowery romantics. Notice, too, that in order to learn what we must learn, we must be "burned" – hurt, destroyed consumed – but also "burnished" – polished, smoothed, brightened. And let’s not forget that burning does more than destroy; it also provides light and heat, both necessary to life. This lesson these kids will learn will destroy them and it is necessary to their lives.

Act Two was the Beat’s answer to the traditional romantic Broadway musical, a kind of gentler companion piece to much darker Nervous Set, also commenting (though more urbanely) on the increasingly unhealthy isolationism and insularity of suburban America during the Eisenhower years. In Act One of The Fantasticks, Matt and Luisa find a traditional Broadway musical Happily Ever After. But it’s tainted – predicated on a deception – like much of mainstream American life at the time (and still today). And like Kerouac, Matt believes he can only find answers Out There in the World; but though Kerouac only crossed America, Matt goes literally around the world.

One could argue that Act One was in form like the old-fashioned musical comedies of yesteryear that portrayed shallow, cardboard love, and that Act Two was more like the concept musicals to come in the 60s and 70s. In Act Two, the disillusionment sinks in and the young lovers find that love cannot be built on false romanticism. The Happily Ever After they have been promised all their lives runs smack up against the reality of Life. As many young people did in post-war America, they find that Marriage is Hard. All the lovely lies of the American establishment, the Happily Ever After that the end of World War II had promised, that mythical American Dream that only a few Americans actually get to enjoy, is revealed to be a fake. Like the musicals that would be written in the years to come, Act Two of The Fantasticks tells us that life is complicated, difficult, confusing, but that it is possible for clear-eyed realists to navigate this decidedly un-musical-comedy terrain. This was a show at least a decade ahead of its time.

The Fantasticks was the beginning of the end of the Rodgers and Hammerstein revolution, and it paved the way for unconventional shows like Anyone Can Whistle, Cabaret, Company, Celebration, Promises, Promises, and others.

From Scott Millers Inside the Fantasticks

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Funny Pain of Growing Up?

But even though the story was no longer set in Texas, the narrator/bandit was still called El Gallo (which is Spanish for The Cock), named for a famous gypsy bullfighter. Some of the Latin musical influences from the Dead Horse score remained in the new songs, particularly in the flamenco rhythms of "It Depends on What You Pay" and the tango of "Never Say No." Henry Fenwick, a Medicine Show con man in Dead Horse, was refashioned into a charming, fading Shakespearean actor for the new show, based quite explicitly on B. Iden Payne, Jones’ college theatre professor. The villain of Dead Horse, a half-breed Apache, became the much gentler, more benign cockney Mortimer, The Man Who Dies (and whose name comes from the Latin word for death, of course), now based loosely on Ronald Coleman in the 1947 film A Double Life. Several of the unnamed extras in Dead Horse were consolidated into The Mute, now more consciously based on Japanese theatre devices.

The one-act version of The Fantasticks – essentially what we know today as Act One – opened in August 1959 at Barnard College’s Minor Latham Theatre. It was billed as a story of "the funny pain of growing up." Baker said of the creative team’s fondness for artistic rebellion, "There was a certain affinity and belief in a theatre that was considered heresy: open stage, direct to the audience." (The now iconic, minimalist set design was actually a design Schmidt had done for another show they had never gotten produced.) This was a radical approach for a musical, a kind of musical theatre as Greenwich Village coffeehouse poetry reading, small, intimate, personal.

But the show didn’t entirely work. Baker later said, "It was, quote unquote, darling. . . it almost made you puke. Lots of things were changed. It was our trial run. We made all our mistakes at Barnard."

From Inside the Fantasticks by Scott Miller

Monday, June 13, 2011

Jack and Matt On the Road

The show’s rhyming, intellectual, Beat-style dialogue and Schmidt’s dissonant, polytonal jazz vocabulary came to the forefront, especially with their new orchestration, scored for just piano and harp. They took their new title from Fleming’s translation of Les Romanesques, called The Fantasticks, complete with quirky spelling. The original French title had implied not just people who were romantic, but more than that, adventurous, a hallmark of the Beats most famously described in Jack Kerouac’s bohemian odyssey, the genre-busting 1957 novel On the Road, which would eventually serve (comically) as a model for Matt’s adventure around the world in Act II of The Fantasticks. There was no direct English translation of that idea of romantic adventurousness, but Fleming’s consciously whimsical misspelling of an approximate English equivalent seemed to convey exactly that sense of rebelliousness the musical’s authors were looking for, a hint of outrageousness, subversiveness. And as a successful graphic artist, Schmidt also thought the title looked better that way.

From Inside The Fantasticks by Scott Miller

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Man Who Plants a Garden

Like Shakespeare often did, Jones found two overriding images he wanted to use to tell his story in its newest form – vegetation and the changing of the seasons – and these images would inform everything in the show, giving it a sense of unity and, in following Shakespeare’s lead, also a kind of ancient timelessness. Also like Shakespeare, Jones used rhymed verse and blank verse, the occasional use of prose, and plenty of soliloquies. El Gallo became in part like Shakespeare’s Chorus, directly addressing the audience, offering us not just important information, but also commentary, philosophy, and foreshadowing. But El Gallo also became the descendant of the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s iconic American play Our Town. The ubiquitous images of moon and sun, now as conflicting metaphors for romantic fantasy and cold reality, came from a production of The Winter’s Tale Jones had seen. And going even further into Bard-land, there are striking parallels between The Fantasticks and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including a God-like controlling figure (El Gallo and Oberon), his handyman and assistant (The Mute and Puck), foolish lovers, and their escape from the "normal" world into a world of adventure where the lovers can learn about themselves and each other, and then return older, wiser, and ready for marriage.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Putting it Together

In June 1959, actress Mildred Dunnock offered director Word Baker the opportunity to present an evening of three one-act plays at the Minor Latham Theatre, way uptown in Manhattan, with a combined budget of one hundred dollars. Baker called Schmidt and Jones and told them if they’d condense Joy Comes to Dead Horse into a one-act, he’d include it in his show. They’d have to do the show very minimalistically and they’d have to have the new version done in four weeks. The budget dictated the physical style, and it forced the authors to focus on the essence of the story, minus all the trappings of a "usual" Broadway musical, in the process "celebrating the restrictions of the theatre rather than trying to disguise it in any way," as Jones later put it. They discarded all the Rodgers and Hammerstein baggage and the show’s Texas setting, and allowed into the piece their joint sense of Beat poetry and intellectual whimsy, which had been struggling to get into the show all along. Like the Beats, they now rejected mindless conformity (the ubiquitous Rodgers and Hammerstein model), they rejected convention for convention’s sake (like the "fourth wall" and realistic sets), and they broke through to something more pure, more primal, more truthful.

(By Scott Miller in Inside The Fantasticks)